First draft, first draft, first draft.
A Lair is a Eulogy
About sixty percent of supervillain friendships fail, by which I mean that one eventually tries to kill the other. So you’d figure, why even try?
But you might as well ask, “Why get married?” and folks do that all the time.
So when the Silk Fury approached me with a business idea, how could I say no? Because the Silk Fury.
And maybe we’d get to be friends.
(Also, she’s like ninety, so there’s a good chance she’d be dead before trying to kill me.)
She lived in a gated community. The guard gave me a once-over — I was dressed in her costume from the subpar biopic — and gave me directions. The door knocker was tarnished from all the hands that had used it but she answered the door herself.
She led me to the back patio. She was spare and bird-like, and she still moved pretty well.
“Nice outfit,” she said. She moved her hand, indicating I should twirl to show it off.
I did. “Sorry it’s the movie version.”
“You know they had to put all kinds of cutouts so the stunt woman could move? And then they had to do weird angles to hide them.”
“Modern fabrics help a bit. But I figured the Mynah costume would attract attention.”
She shrugged. “Long as you’re not a bill collector, they wouldn’t care. Sweet tea?” I nodded. “You know the film, you must know Professor Plunder.”
“Inventor and thief. Pulled off some big jobs, including the case of the lost Atlantean gold. Nobody knew who he was or ever found out.”
“And they’re never gonna. He had family. You know my relationship with him?”
I was proud to show off. “I’m a fan. Your first love. You might have started as his sidekick, but you don’t know, because Anodyne erased your criminal memories at Plunder’s request. Eventually you got a pardon after saving the world.”
“What you don’t know is that I wrote him love letters. With his real name.”
“How do you remember? Anodyne was supposed to erase—”
“That was a story, kid. Anodyne could suppress memories but not erase them. Some came back.”
“Okay. How does that translate into work for me?”
“Which leads to the second question: What do you know about delvers?”
“People who find former supervillain bases and explore them. Like people who explore former missile bases. It’s usually illegal because the bases tend to be on someone else’s property. They sell the artifacts if there are any.”
She kept smiling at me.
“OMG. Someone found Professor Plunder’s base?”
She smiled. “I follow the delver boards.”
I said something equivalent to “shut the front door,” and “Then they know who he is. Was.”
She shook her head. “Nope. But: his lair moves and they know how to get to it tomorrow.”
“I remember how to get to it today.”
The thing about Art Deco robots trying to kill me is that their acoustic shielding prevents any of my Crappy Sonic Powers™ from being, you know, damaging.
Professor Plunder knew his stuff. The robots’ force blasts did not penetrate their armor so I couldn’t stand between them and dodge while they took each other out. The force blasts were sonic and didn’t affect the walls or instrumentation, either. Bright side, their punches did, and they kept punching like the mindless automatons they were.
The birthday present was that they used sonar to “see.”
I can mimic sonar well enough that it was less “trying to kill me” and more a demolition derby. I perched on the entry ladder and let them not see walls or each other until they were almost all gone.
The deal was I stole things with his real name for her and kept anything else I could find. Stolen gold, if I found it. Weapons would be obsolete but might fetch on the collector market.
The last robot was standing in the room, unable to move and facing away from me. How much easier could it be?
I dropped down behind him. This headquarters was a converted WWII submarine, so it really only had two directions: fore and aft. While I mentally flipped a coin to decide, another robot came in.
Was I going to have to trick its sonar?
No; it started collecting pieces of downed robots. Automated cleanup. I didn’t wait to see if the remaining guard robot would blast it; I had things to do.
The doors were submarine hatches: big surprise. Everything was small and cramped. It was probably why the robots had legs, though; wheeled robots would be trapped in a single area of the headquarters.
Behind the new robot was the machine shop. The cleanup robot started hauling pieces in. There were already robot husks in the room with a third robot already working. I saw that it was fast; I’d probably have to face two or three robots on the way out: Don’t steal anything bulky.
I’m sure someone who knew about Professor Plunder would have been fascinated, but I knew him only as an adjunct to Silk Fury’s story. So I slipped past it and into the next room. I shut the bulkhead door behind me and scanned the area. Galley, but neat and clean. No dust…which was to be expected if the cleanup robots were still working. Next was a tiny dining room (mess area?) and then two doors. Well, one door and one curtain.
Behind the curtain was his office. I gave it a quick exam: blond wooden desk with stationery (personalized, no less); two sets of calling cards (one set with “Professor Plunder,” one set with the name “Scott Prendergast.” His name. I slipped them into a pocket. There were files in the drawers, but all the ones I looked at were gadget designs. Interesting as a collector’s item but probably obsolete.
I did grab his pen set and a small black prism-shaped paperweight with PLUNDER written on it; I love pens, and I figured the paperweight worked as a set.
Across the hall was his bedroom. It was sparse: bed, night table, lamp, two wardrobes. Pictures of dogs playing poker on the walls…probably not ironic.
I looked at one of them. It was actually a dog as a judge.
And it wasn’t a print. It was a painting. Maybe an original.
I noted it and went on; I was looking for the love letters.
The clothes were nothing special in the first wardrobe.
The second one was…
It was a shrine.
The lair stayed in one place for only a few hours at a time, but she knew where and when it was going to be today. With that kind of time pressure, I didn’t have time to do a lot of research: I barely had time to change uniforms (I was not going as Silk Fury: besides the awkwardness of the outfit, it had no pockets, or the hidden things I had secreted in my costume) and grab my gear. We met at the entrance location. She pointed out the access tunnel, and made arrangements for pickup. At worst…well, at worst I’d be dead, but somewhere along the line was the chance that I’d be there overnight.
I didn’t want that to happen: I didn’t want to have to evade the delvers or their on-ground support people, if any.
I was sorry that she and I hadn’t got a chance to talk, really.
It was a short acquaintance, and I was hoping that the betrayal part, if it happened, would be far in the future.
The deadline made me doubt that, though.
Photos of the Silk Fury adorned the inside of the wardrobe doors; an old costume of hers hung there; and a ledge held letters.
Most were written is cross-hand style: The first sender wrote in the normal way and the recipient replied on the same page but at a right angle, so one letter had both exchanges. A couple of letters, the ones I was interested in, had no replies. She had sent them to him and they had gone unanswered.
Well, not really: One had a salutation but nothing else. The other had the start of a reply but nothing past the first paragraph. I checked the dates: Both close together in 1961.
The third was her good-bye note. It listed what she wanted Anodyne to remove.
I stuffed them in my carrying bag, then the costume. Personal reasons.
At that point, there was a loud bang, my flashlight went out, and there was the sound of shouting. Then shooting.
Delvers? The bang was typical of an EMP grenade; there’s a limit to what it would affect here because these things ran on vacuum tubes, but it certainly fried my light. I checked. And my phone.
Some day I had to figure out how to use my powers for sonar, but that was in the future. In the meantime, help them? Or not? What they were doing was illegal.
Well, technically, what I was doing was illegal.
I had the letters. There was no pile of Atlantean gold sitting here, so I stuck my head into the dark corridor and listened…
…and nearly had it taken off as someone ran into me.
“Ow!” she said even though she was the one who had thumped my head into the metal doorframe.
“In here,” I said, and pulled her in to the room before I shut the door.
She turned on her glaringly-bright flashlight —shielded, I guess. “That thing — Lars —” And then she shrieked again and I heard three gunshots, though I think she emptied the pistol: I saw her pulling the trigger but nothing was happening.
“Stop! It’s like a Flintstones Roomba.” I might have shouted because I had no idea what a normal tone was.
Of course, if I couldn’t hear her, she probably couldn’t hear me. Unless she had ear protection. I plucked the hot pistol from her, managed to eject the clip, and gave it back.
Her mouth moved. She probably had ear protection. She said something to me, but I just touched my ear and stood motionless in the big wide silence with my back to the door.
She went over to the bed and touched it reverently. Her search of the bedside missed some things I had found, which made me feel better. I noticed that she gave the remains of the proto-Roomba a wide berth.
And then she found the shrine. And stared at it.
I could hear a little by then, and she was probably louder than she intended. “So that’s why he never married.”
I cleared my throat. “You knew him?”
She started. I guess she could hear a bit, too. “Of him. One of my grampa’s younger brothers.” She looked back at the shrine, then at me. “I guess you’re the Mynah.”
“Guess I am. You are?”
“Elizabeth Prendergast. Mom’s sick so I need to find the gold. Lars volunteered— Lars…” She started to cry. Not big heaving cries or anything, just tears leaking without stopping.
That was an interesting name. I handed her a 1960-vintage kerchief from the dressing table. “Your boyfriend?”
“A friend. He wanted more but…” I felt uneasy watching the tears leak out.
Which could be the point. Maybe she was lying; it’s not like we carry ID around. Maybe she was a supervillain…
“The robots weren’t that tough,” I told her.
“For you, maybe, but for us? It was big and mean and bulletproof and slicey.”
“I didn’t fight a slicey one.” I thought I had gotten them all—
“I’m not lying! There was another one repairing it but it was in good enough shape to…” And the tears got bigger.
“Okay, Elizabeth Prendergast.” I hoped her full name would help. “There’s got to be a second exit.”
“Betsy. Call me Betsy.”
I almost responded with my real name and then caught myself. I didn't know anything about her. “Betsy. Imagine you’re in bed, suddenly you’ve got Captain Wonder coming in, what do you do?” She just stared at me. “If the gold was physical, he'd want some of it as he left. It’s along his escape route.”
“Oh.” She pointed. “Then head away from the official entrance.”
“There’s no second door or a hidden passage, so the hall.”
It was dark in the hallway, but she had a flashlight. She didn’t resist when I took it. Our hands touched. You’d think I never touched anybody before. Jesus, I clearly was lonely. As I put the loop around my wrist, I murmured, “You threw an EMP grenade?”
“Lars said it’s standard practice to throw one in.” I could practically hear the tears hitting her jacket, now that my hearing was back.
“You knocked out my flashlight.”
“I thought you’d have special stuff.”
“Off the shelf is harder to track,” I said, which was a pretty good reason considering I just made it up.
“I meant like sonar and…stuff.”
“Eventually,” I said. “It’s not like powers come with a manual.” We just entered a living room. “Or even an IKEA instruction sheet.”
She snorted, which made me immoderately proud.
I glanced the light around the room. Sofa, chairs, big framed photos taken by somebody without a lot of talent, but they were all things he was on record as having stolen. Six painted torpedo tubes, several of them altered to be cupboards of some kind. Actually, Austin Powers would have loved this place. Shag carpet, lamp, cigar store Indian—what?
Nope: my second look confirmed it was a big slicey robot. I pushed Betsy to one side, glad she didn’t have the gun, dove over the sofa, light splashing all over as I moved. From this angle it looked like there was a spiral staircase heading down.
I don’t much like spiral staircases.
“You go down, I’ll deal with this!”
I pointed to myself. “Super,” then her. “Not super.”
Big talk. I had no idea how I was going to deal with it.
The other robots had seen by sonar, so it was easy to make them attack each other: I made things “invisible” by neutralizing the clicks. I tried the opposite tack and flooded the area with sonar clicks so it didn’t know where the walls were.
It stopped and moved forward at one quarter speed. Then when nothing stopped it, half speed and speeding up.
I hoped it would hit a wall but it had a floor plan or something memorized as it charged to my last known location.
(I was elsewhere by then, thank you.)
This spoke of learning.
I had to breathe. I dropped the illusion.
I heard Betsy’s footsteps on the stairs, and the robot detoured that way. I flashed the light at its back and said, “Hey!”
I’m not witty. Sue me.
The idea was I’d fight the killer robot on my own in the dark.
Its back had the same emblem I had seen on the fronts of the robots. It had front & back emblems. What did that mean?
Betsy said the smaller robot had been repairing this one. So this robot was built from pieces of the old ones.
Interesting if true. Right now it was heading to the stairs. Where Betsy was.
I said “Hold my beer” to the fighting idea and tackled it low, around the knees. It fell on its knees and chest.
That didn’t mean it couldn’t attack me. It still rotated arms and torso like a machine, not a human. And it did.
I dodged the first strike as I was disentangling my legs from its legs and was very proud that I’d managed to dodge the second as I rolled away.
Then my side started to burn, and I saw that I was very close to performing in the gore burlesque: a long line of skin was exposed where the sword had slashed it and the skin was starting to pink up, welling blood.
I did the only sensible thing: I dove for the stairwell.
I knew I wouldn’t go through the stairs; they were full of Betsy. We tumbled down against the railing and halfway to the floor below.
I tried not to think about what part of her I was taking my hand from as I looked around.
This spiral staircase ended in a frickin’ door.
Spiral staircases are evil. That’s just a fact.
I heard the robot moving and I sent a lot of sonar clicks up the stairs. Maybe that would be like a covered-over stairwell.
Betsy tried the door. It was, of course, locked.
I couldn’t even try to talk to Betsy because I was busy making sonar noises.
She said, “Lure it down here, around the stairs. We’ll sprint back up.”
Slow robot has to be slow going up the stairs too, right?
I nodded, stopped clicking, and said, “Agreed.”
We got in position.
It came down, Betsy sprinted up, it moved around and blocked my path.
It was cramped enough here that it couldn’t slash, only thrust. At least Betsy was safe, I thought as I dodged deadly blades.
If I could lock it inside that room—
Look, maybe it could get in. Somehow. Then I could break the lock—somehow—and it would be trapped.
Somehow, somehow, somehow.
I stood in front of the door and cancelled out the robot’s sonar.
The flaw was that I was in the way while it charged forward. At the last moment I tried to dodge but didn’t make it: the robot hit me, I hit the door, and the door splintered.
I flailed as I thought this because I had not expected to be tumbling into a room, I had expected to be crushed by a quarter-ton of killer robot. I mean, I was glad of it, but still—
W. T. F?
Some of the doors were hollow-core interior doors painted to look like metal. Why?
Get back on track: killer robot in front of me.
I was faster: faster to get up, faster to get to the stairs, faster to go up them, flashlight bobbing all the way up.
In the living room, Betsy was gone. (At least there wasn’t a big pool of blood.)
I kept moving fast to the entry foyer. No robots there, just poor Lars’ corpse; a dead guy downgraded this from hideout to lair. The paralyzed robot from earlier was probably in the repair shop.
I knocked on the door before I shut it: metal. So I latched myself in with the dead man.
Mystery: where was the robot I had left there?
Probably in the repair center over there. I figured slicey-robot had been built out of the husks of the one I destroyed.
Mystery: Where was Betsy?
She should have left, but she needed that gold and Lars was there.
She couldn’t have gone another way. Could she?
This lair had engineering access areas underneath but really, there was only one floor. She wasn’t aft, she had to be fore, toward the big drill.
Something clanged against the door. I didn’t have time to be squeamish. I made a face and then frisked Lars’ body for weapons and equipment.
I left his personal stuff, his watch and wallet and such-like, behind. His phone had been crushed but he had a tablet in a waterproof case. He didn’t even have a gun.
Second clang at the door.
A robot with swords for hands probably can’t work a circular wheel. I had a second still.
Mystery: He didn’t have a gun but Betsy had had a gun. Was this some weird double-cross by Betsy? Or she didn’t give him a gun because he was trigger happy? Or, third possibility, the repairing proto-Roomba I saw earlier took the gun and it was now going to be part of some robot I met.
I sighed. I needed to find Betsy, and I had to figure it out fast, because I couldn’t defeat Slicey out there and I wouldn’t be able to defeat this hypothetical Pistolbot.
It would be nice if I could disable all the robots at once because I had nothing to show a profit on this deal except for a nice pen set, but I’d settle for surviving.
Somewhere in the room, a typewriter rattled into action. It startled me, but I found it by the ladder to the conning tower.
Not a typewriter; a teletype. I had never seen one. I angled the flashlight to read what it was typing.
WE ARE AT AN IMPASSE.
I said aloud, “Do I have to type? Or can you hear me?”
What new wizardry was this?
Brain in a jar? Seemed in line with the tech but even brains need to be fed and this had been here 40 years.
Robotic intelligence? AI wasn’t Plunder’s style: he was evolutionary, not revolutionary. Dr. Myrmidon had AI in 1965 (look up “Dragonjaw”) and maybe he owed Plunder a favor. Unlikely.
I’m a supervillain now; I think stuff like that. Or maybe it was like ADT for supervillain lairs. You pay a fee, they watch your place. (Siri, reminder for five years from now: if remote security for lairs doesn’t exist, start it.)
Except Plunder was rumored to have that gold. What are the odds it could stay secret for forty years? Once ersatz-ADT knew he was dead, nothing could stop them from stripping the place clean.
Okay. So AI is most likely of an unlikely lot.
“What can I call you?”
I was expecting “Killatron” or “Defense-o-Matic” but Frank?
A trans AI? I mean, why shouldn’t they regard “Killatron” as the dead name?
“I don’t really see this as an impasse, Frank. I can go up that ladder and exit any time I want.”
AND LEAVE YOUR FRIEND?
Betsy was still here? “I only just met her.”
NO ONE AND THEN TWO GROUPS AT ONCE? I DO NOT BELIEVE.
“The place has been found. You’re going to have more tomorrow, all looking for Professor Plunder’s gold.”
IT IS ALMOST GONE.
MY CARE IS EXPENSIVE.
“Nutrient bath and stuff? I can’t even figure out how it gets delivered to a secret location.” A desperate gamble here: “I knew a guy that became a brain in a jar.”
I WISH I WERE A BRAIN IN A JAR.
“I can put you in touch. What are you?”
PROFESSOR PLUNDER IS MY BROTHER SCOTT.
Sometimes you just have to believe people, and believe in people. Maybe this was a traitorous AI and she was a supervillain, but maybe not.
“Where's the other one? She's your relative. Stop the robot outside.”
SHE IS HIDING.
“I’ll find her! Just…stop the robots.”
I hesitated a long time before I opened that hatch because, you know, sixty per cent of super-villains turn on each other. I did it and ran to the living room.
“Betsy?” I called. “Betsy!”
One of the rounded tubes against the wall swung open. “Mynah?”
“I need your help.”
“I’m not super.”
“But you are a Prendergast.” I gave her a hand getting out. “So is the lair.”
“Here you go,” I told the Silk Fury when I handed over the letters.
“There’s no gold,” I told her. We were having tea on her back deck. “Frank Prendergast was paralyzed from the neck down in a car accident in 1962. His brother Scott paid for his care and later gave him a remote control gadget to run the lair.” (Poor Lars died because the nurse had trouble finding and bringing it—Frank hadn’t used it for decades.)
“He was always sending money for Frank.”
I nodded. Nice to have confirmation. “When Scott was declared dead, Frank inherited everything, including the value of the gold. Gold was still $35 an ounce; it wasn’t worth what it is now. Most of that got spent: institutions are expensive.” I didn’t tell her that there were two physical bars stashed in the torpedo tube that Betsy had hidden in. Frank gave Betsy both of them: at a guess, about a hundred thousand dollars worth.
I handed her some pictures from the shrine. “Given their history, I think you can sell these for about a hundred thousand.” I looked around. “Keep this place going for a little while.”
She looked at me and then laughed. “So you know I was playing you.”
“For the gold? Yeah. The deadline was the big clue.”
“How do I know you’re not playing me?”
“You don’t, I guess. But I’m guessing there are enough clues in the letters to point you to a hidden stash or two. Worthless to me, because I don’t have the context.”
She laughed some more. “Well, I’ll see if the Delvers have found them yet. If I need someone to go in, can I hire you?”
“Sure. But straight cash. All I got out of this one is a pen set.”
Not quite: I got to keep the pen set, the paperweight, and the contents of the shrine. (Collectables are worth a lot if you know where to sell them, and I'm a fan.)
Plus I made friends.
|Prowess||Good (5)||Intellect||Average (3)|
|Coordination||Great (6)||Awareness||Weak (2)|
It has sonar (Poor (1) Super Senses ) to see in the dark and Fair (4) Damage Resistance. It can hit, and has an Average (3) Blaster built into its chest.
Created by the Repair robot after the original security robots were destroyed out of available parts.
|Prowess||Good (5)||Intellect||Fair (3)|
|Coordination||Great (6)||Awareness||Weak (2)|
It has sonar (Poor (1) Super Senses ) to see in the dark and Fair (4) Damage Resistance. It replaces the Blaster with two big swords built into its arms (Good (5) Slashing, Extra: Effect Good (5) Slashing) and Good (5) Fast Attack; it tries to combine attacks for a Great effect.